Friday, 28 September 2012

Martyrs: The Most Important Torture Porn?


The hope would be that by now, you would know of the 2008 French horror film Martyrs. Directed by Pascal Laugier (whose The Tall Man has just been released), the film is notorious for being an intense and violent piece. I have yet to meet someone who has not said it was a harrowing experience but, most importantly, ends in a way that makes it completely worthwhile.

Contrary to popular opinion, I am not a massive torture porn fan. First off, I think it is a label that was used to generalise and degrade a lot of horror, but secondly, I don't find enjoyment in watching films that are violent just for the sake of being violent. Don't get me wrong, I do enjoy a good violent film, but only with context. I will happily enjoy vocal chords tearing in the military/science bashing Day of the Dead, or the unbridled slaughtering in the 1984-with-a-twist Dredd, but I cannot enjoy films like The Tortured, where plot is eschewed in favour of impressive special effects. I'm sure a lot of people would argue some films I enjoy border in to this territory, but I will stand by most of my choices. What I am saying is that I have not liked a film simply because it is violent.



A lot of torture porn films tend to go on the 'hey, dude, look how sick this is!' side of the tracks, but Martyrs has absolutely none of this. It is a tough film to watch, and does not let you enjoy the violence on screen (and it is ALL on screen). Instead, it forces you to sit and wait, uncomfortably, feeling dirty for watching to see where it goes. And this is the challenge it sets for you. About an hour in to the film, I was very tempted to just turn it off, a cardinal sin, and something I have never done owing to intensity before. Thankfully, I stomached it up and continued on, and, I'm not giving it away here, it is worth watching to the end.

Countless critics have made this observation, that the film is a tough watch, but ultimately rewarding, and I must agree. Like I say, I wouldn't be a massive torture porn fan, and the New French Extremity movement of films (including films like Haute Tension) have never sat overly well with me. I am fine with violence used to further or enhance plot, but not in place of it. Martyrs very clearly walks a fine line where it could just be violence for the sake of shock value, and it definitely fits in the torture porn classifications, but it directly challenges them, and the viewer. You do not walk out of Martyrs looking for your next gore hit, but with reflection on what you have just seen, and how it relates to you and your place in the world.



Martyrs is an incredible watch, and one you should put yourself through, but be warned, you do have to watch the whole thing. It is a fine piece of art, whole and complex. If you leave when it starts to raise the intensity levels, you will end up with only half the story you need to savour the experience. And you should go in knowing as little as possible. All I knew going to see it was that it was an intense and violent film, and I am glad that's all I knew. I know people who haven't seen the film who have read spoilers about the ending so they could judge if they should watch the film. This is a BAD IDEA, because the power is in the journey and the conclusion, not one or the other.

So, in what seems to happen with every film trend, Martyrs has become a benchmark in torture porn, and has probably closed the door on what can be done with the genre. There will be plenty more films. There will be exploitation. There will be intensity. There will be blood. But there will never be another Martyrs*.


*Except for the alleged US remake, which can automatically be filed under 'bad ideas'.